Shakespeare through Performance


Dr. Vicente Forés López

Curso monográfico de literatura inglesa: “Shakespeare through performance”

November, 2006


Women in Shakespeare's Comedies

By ‘Production Team’

-     Vita Korolevych

-     Isabel Latorre

-     Vanessa Lorite

-     Julia Más

-     Rosana Torres

-     Xihong Liu

-     Daria La Barbera

-     Gabrielle Neuditschko






1.1. The Merchant of Venice

1.2. As You Like It

1.3. Twelfth Night



2.1. Much Ado About Nothing

2.2. The Comedy of Errors

           2.3. The Merry Wives of Windsor










The purpose of this essay is to provide a deep analysis of female roles in Shakespeare’s comedies. To develop this task, we will contextualize the women figure in comedies during Shakespeare’s time, and we will study some plays of the author dealing with this issue. Thus, each of us has developed a different task in order to create a more complete and clear essay. The distribution has been the following:


- Index: Julia Más

- Presentation: Julia Más

- Introduction: Vita Korolevych

- Analysis of Women Disguised as Men: Rosana Torres

- Analysis of The Merchant of Venice: Vita Korolevych

- Analysis of As You Like It: Isabel Latorre

- Analysis of Twelfth Night: Julia Más

- Analysis of Women’s Roles Through Shakespeare’s Comedies: Isabel Latorre

- Analysis of Much Ado About Nothing: Xihong Liu

- Analysis of The Comedy of Errors: Daria La Barbera

- Analysis of The Merry Wives of Windsor: Vanessa Lorite

- Conclusion: Gabrielle Neuditschko

- Bibliography: Rosana Torres and Vanessa Lorite


The writing, correction and revision of this essay has been carried out by Xihong Liu, Vanessa Lorite, Julia Más and Rosana Torres.




William Shakespeare´s comedies, as well as providing entertainment, reveal customs, traditions, prejudices, specific mode of thought and behaviour as well as beliefs typical of that period. While analysing the structure of the comedies, we cannot avoid historical and political connotations. In order to understand how the society as a whole was regarded and what the roles of both genders were, it is necessary to study the history of that period.


Shakespeare’s comedies indicate that there was a clear borderline between men and women. Their obligations were strictly subdivided. Men were given force and power while women had to content themselves to be obedient and submissive. In this paper we will try to analyse the female characters in some of Shakespeare comedies (The Twelfth Night, As you like it, The Comedy of errors, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing) either by studying their inner world or by contrasting them to men.


On the surface, all these comedies seem to prove that in Shakespeare´s times it was obligatory for a woman to marry well, be faithful and obedient to her husband and procreate children (probably rather boys than girls). A man during that period, in contrast, had to be well-educated, have polished manners and grace, be considerate, have high standards of proper behaviour and know the arts and sciences. Both men and women had to have elegance and be of noble birth. But a more detailed study of each of them indicates that the situation was not as simple as it seems to be at first glance.





Women were only allowed on stage after 1660, following the downfall of Cromwell's puritanical government. The first recorded female actor in England was Margaret Hughes, who played Desdemona in Thomas Killigrew's production of Othello. The female character who has the most lines is Rosalind, the heroine of As You Like It, who has more lines than any of Shakespeare's female characters. Cleopatra comes in second with 670 lines and third place belongs to Imogen (Cymbeline), with 591 lines. Portia and Juliet complete the top five.


The dramatic use of disguise is one of the most ancient elements of the European theatrical tradition, and is found in comedy, above all, as a means of misunderstanding, intrigue and confusion. Besides, the use of disguise implies one of the most important conventions in Shakespeare’s times, which is the topic we are going to deal with in this paper: the feminine character is obliged to adopt a masculine role due to different issues. Shakespeare uses this convention in five of his comedies, such as The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594-95), The Merchant of Venice (1596-97), As You Like It (1599-1600), Twelfth Night (1599-1600), and Cymbeline (1609-10). In this collective paper we are going to deal with three of these comedies: The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It and Twelfth Night, and we will try to analyse the relevance of this fact within the plays.


Women disguise as men, most of the times as page boys. Therefore, the use of the disguise has several connotations which include aspects like the production, the external perception of the other characters towards the disguised character, the disguise effectiveness, the dramatic tension, the character’s motivations, or the linguistic features. As for the production, in the Elizabethan theatre, feminine roles were played by young men. So, the fact that a young lady, as a main character, decided to disguise as a man, created a difficult play of identities: the young actor will end playing a woman who is trying to play a young man at the same time. Moreover, this leads to an interaction between appearance and reality. However, actresses disguised as men seem to be a provocation for the church.


Although said disguise was seen as provocative, it comes up as a mechanism which allows the liberation or the social emancipation for those people who adopt it: all the heroines manage to overcome all the imposed restrictions on women of the epoch thanks to the use of the disguise. Besides, this offers Shakespeare the possibility to allow disguised women to make subtle comments about the social interaction between the man and the woman. In addition, the effectiveness of the disguise also implies that women have to adopt an appropriate discourse to their new role, a masculine register. So, the disguise becomes an instrument for women to put them at the same social level as men. It also provides women the authority and free movements that are required by the circumstances in which they are involved. However, the women’s ability to adapt to their discourse, in form and content, and also their behaviour to a new condition, to an imitating identity, will be crucial for the control and success of the play.


On the one hand, the use of disguise leads to the following conclusion: due to the fact that other characters in the play and also the audience do not realize the real identities that are hidden behind the costumes, the tension of the moment is very peculiar. This is because the audience does not feel that they can be found out due to their possible mistakes if we pay attention to the linguistic features they use or the way they behave. So, the tension is rather due to the uncertainty provoked by the tragicomic aspects of the action. On the other hand, the disguise provokes confusing situations. This happens when another feminine character falls in love with the disguised characters. For example, in Twelfth Night, Olivia falls in love with Viola disguised as Cesarius. (Act 1, end of scene V. Greenblatt, Stephen.The Norton Shakespeare: "Twelfth Night". Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997. Pages 1768-1821).

And the same situation takes place in As You Like It, where Rosalind is desired by the peasant woman Phoebe.(Act 2,scene VII,lines147-148. Greenblatt, Stephen.The Norton Shakespeare: "As You Like It" . Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997. Pages 1600-1656). These situations highlight Shakespeare’s intention to explore the consequences, the psychological consequences above all, which are derived from the masculine disguise.


Another element related to the external perception that other characters have about the disguised characters seems to be the fact that everybody is always insisting on emphasizing beauty and youth. This on one hand helps to build dramatic tension, because the audience is made aware of the possibility that the disguised characters could be found out imminently. On the other hand, this situation also allows the audience to become involved in the dramatic irony and the resulting humour. For instance, Mary describes Viola, in his role play as Cesarius, as “a fair young woman” (Act 1, scene V, line102. Greenblatt, Stephen.The Norton Shakespeare: "Twelfth Night". Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997. Pages 1768-1821).


As for the linguistic features, double meaning and ambiguity seem to be the most important ones used in Shakespeare’s comedies. On the one hand, the use of disguise involves certain linguistic features that affect the dramatic building in order to understand what is happening on stage. Basically, the disguise requires a verbal adaptation and a specific behaviour that, on the one hand, is vital to the realism and complexity of the play. On the other hand, it can be considered a source of humour and satire. We are witness to a certain unfamiliarization which is understood to be typical of the masculine gender. However, we cannot talk about a standard masculine discourse, but rather we are interested here in the individual use of the characters that answer their purposes and contribute to their characterization in a wide variety of styles and kinds of humour. Apart from this, it is important to mention that disguised women also experience the feeling of shame. One of the most important aspects that disguised women have to take into account are ingenuity and verbal skills. The ingenuity that disguised women make use of has nothing to do with temerity, but rather with care and wisdom.


Finally, with regards to the ambiguous moments of the play, we have to mention those occasions in which women make use of indirect reference in order to defend themselves. This situation has to do with their situation as women and as disguised characters. When they are referring to their own situation, not from their personal and subjective plane, but from the public and masculine plane, they are giving their thoughts an objectivity that would be socially unacceptable if they were talking as women. Thus, they make use of the third person to refer to themselves to give their words objectiveness.


1.1. The Merchant of Venice


It is well known fact that women during the Renaissance and for a long period throughout history were viewed as inferior to men who were considered intellectually superior. But maybe this inferiority has been too exaggerated throughout history. Portia from The Merchant of Venice annihilates that myth. When Shakespeare introduced her in Scene II, Act I, we immediately notice her quick wit, originality, sharpness and smartness. Her speech is eloquent and reveals a high level of education. Portia does not fit well into the conception of “submissive woman inferior to man”. Neither does Nerissa. Portia´s vocabulary is characterized by richness and she makes use of original comparisons, metaphors and similes. For example, she is aware that “youth is as hair and good counsel is a cripple”, that “it can be easier to teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow her own teaching”(1.2.6. Scene-indexed HTML of the complete text. Nerissa is equally intelligent. She observes that “Superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but competency lives longer”.(1.2.6. Scene-indexed HTML of the complete text. Comparing the female characters in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare seems to emphasize their superiority.


But despite all this we see how women were limited in their rights to heir titles, to choose a husband and in general to behave in accordance with their own free will. Portia, in The Merchant of Venice, like Bianca in The Taming of a Shrew must not only obey her husband but also her father. Fathers are often described as tyrants and egoists considering themselves as masters of their daughters’ lives. In The merchant of Venice we deal with such a father. According to Portia she may “neither choose whom she would nor refuse whom she dislikes” (1.2.6. Scene-indexed HTML of the complete text. situation is doubly ridiculous because her father is dead, but even so she must obey. Literally her will “is curbed by the will of a dead father”. Before his death, Portia’s father put her portrait in a leaden chest for the men willing to marry her to choose among 3 chests ( made of gold, silver and lead). But the fact that he put her portrait in a leaden chest reveals something about her father. He sought intellectual fulfilment for his daughter. And although she could not attend the university (because only men were allowed to do that at that time), we see that he did everything he could to cultivate her mind. So in all probability he wanted Portia to have a place for herself within a masculine world. Maybe he chose the leaden chest as the most suitable because he wanted to avoid a marriage for convenience or maybe by doing this he wanted to prevent men from treating Portia as an inferior being or as means to obtain comfort, luxury etc.


When Bassanio “disabled his estate by showing a more swelling port” ”(1.1.4. Scene-indexed HTML of the complete text. ) , his chief aim was to come fairly off from the great debts by means of a woman . That is why he seeks a rich heiress to become his wife. Here a woman was viewed as an object useful to obtain a comfortable life with a lot of money and plenty of comfort. Bassanio while describing the lady he is supposedly in love with, starts: “In Belmont is a lady richly left….”(1.1.5. Scene-indexed HTML of the complete text. Judging by these lines we cannot avoid the perception of inequality between men and women. A woman had to be rich enough in order to buy a husband and not the other way round. But although Bassanio chooses the leaden casket, he seems to be more than interested in Portia’s gold. When she learns of Antonio owing 3 thousand ducats to the Jew, she is ready to pay “six thousand, double six thousand and then treble that” . “You shall have gold to pay the petty debt twenty times over. (3.2.44. Scene-indexed HTML of the complete text. Once again Shakespeare seems to draw our attention to the inequality between Portia and Bassanio: she offers him everything: love and gold, but not vice versa. And Portia is not and exception: Jessica, Shylock’s daughter is very resolute as well. . She decides to leave her father’s home against his will.


Following Portia and Nerissa’s conversation we can conclude that Shakespeare had no doubt of the equality of the intelligence of women and men. It can be said that Shakespeare underlines Portia’s worth and merit. In that sense Portia, being a woman can even be viewed as superior to a wide range of noble men from all over the world (ranging from England to Morocco). Portia sense of humour and witty remarks confirm this suggestion. When talking about Neapolitan prince, she hints at the possibility of his “mother playing false with a smith” (1.2.6. Scene-indexed HTML of the complete text. the prince was so fond of horses that he could even shoe his own horse himself). These lines indicate that she can freely express what she thinks even when the topics limit on prohibited themes (for sexual connotations in her references to the possibility of intercourse relationship between young German’s mother and a smith make themselves conspicuous). She also rejects the County Palatine. She would rather “be married to a death’s head with a bone” (1.2.7. Scene-indexed HTML of the complete text. his mouth than to Neapolitan Prince and the County Palatine. She also makes fun of the young German. She says that when he is best he is a little worse than a man, and when he is worst he is a little better than a beast. We see that Portia does not literally obey her father’s will. Trying to avoid it she finds a way out: for example, in order not to marry the young German she asks Nerissa to put a glass of rhenish wine on the wrong casket for she knew he would choose it. She is so resolute that nobody can oblige her to do anything she does not please and her resourcefulness helps her in this undertaking.


So the noble men from all over the world: England, France, Spain, Germany, Scotland, Morocco prove to be ridiculous, preposterous, vain and useless near Portia, the embodiment of intelligence, common sense and reason. Her comments on the suitors are full of subtle humour. This makes us see a woman in a new light during Shakespeare epoch. There is no doubt that Portia is intellectually higher than any of the candidates mentioned above. Portia, apparently capricious, hang to her own principles and her own free will with a firmness which carries her through every phase of her life. This cannot be said about the men in the comedies under analysis. So in Shakespeare’s plays in general and in The Merchant of Venice in particular, women show higher intellect and have a more instinctive decision-making style. Men, unfortunately do not display an equivalent intellectual performance.


The Prince of Morocco is greedy and preposterous. What is more, he is vain. He says to himself: “Pause here, Morocco, and weigh your value with an even hand.” “As much as I deserve! Why, that is the lady: I do in birth deserve her and in fortunes, in graces and in qualities of breeding. But more than these, in love I do deserve” (2.7.27. Scene-indexed HTML of the complete text The readers can not help laughing at his excessive pride in his own appearance and accomplishments. Prince of Aragon is too superfluous: he would have chosen the leaden casket if it had been fairer. He lacks depth of intelligence, feeling and knowledge. In The Merchant of Venice the female characters are brighter than male ones.


Portia’s parallel can be found in Jessica. Lorenzo is willing to take her from her father’s house, but with her father’s gold and jewels. Besides she is obliged to renounce her faith and be converted to Christianity. It seems that a woman during the epoch described was expected to sacrifice everything for the man’s sake. (Among the men in The Merchant of Venice only Antonio, perhaps being in love with Bassanio, is capable of sacrificing himself: he offers Antonio his credit. But Antonio and Bassanio are both men, so they stand apart and are not going to be discussed here).


As women were not allowed to play on stage, Shakespeare frequently uses disguise. Female parts were performed by young boys dressed as women wearing heavy make-up. And often, in turn, they were disguised as men (like Jessica wearing page’s cloths, Portia etc.) by means of which the naturism of performance was achieved. While talking about women, we can also make some comments on their appearance. In his comedies, Shakespeare gives us indications of how an ideal beauty looked like at that moment.: By describing Portia’s appearance, Shakespeare makes use of the metaphor “Her sunny locks hang on her temples like a golden fleece” (1.1.5. Scene-indexed HTML of the complete text. This description echoes the ideal of a lady established in Shakespeare time which was also the time of queen Elizabeth reign: blonde hair, pale skin, bright eyes etc. It is said that women used even toxic substances to whiten their faces and bleach their hair to achieve fair shades of colour. Today, the colour of a woman’s hair seems to be of little importance and to be too pale can be an indication of a decease.


1.2. As You Like It


In both plays, The Merchant of Venice Dream and As You Like It, the main female characters, Portia and Rosalind, appear disguised as men on the stage. So they are real men, the actors, who are playing a female role (the female character of the play) who is, at the same time, disguised as a man in the plot of the play. Rosalind, the heroine of As You Like It, has more lines than any of Shakespeare's female characters. Cleopatra comes in second with 670 lines.


Much of the fun in Shakespeare’s comedies comes from the sexual confusion of the characters in the plays. Rosalind is the daughter of the exiled Duke Senior who has been banished and has gone to the Forest of Arden. She and her cousin Celia, disguised as Ganymede, a young man, and Aliena, a peasant girl, escape to the forest. Rosalind enters the Forest of Arden in search of freedom but the costume also gives her freedom. It was a patriarchal society in which women were under male control so becoming a boy gives her a kind of freedom she had never felt before. The place of women in renaissance society was limited to specific rules and limitations, guided by lessons of virtue and demure conduct. In her boy's disguise, she escapes (for a time) the limitations of being a woman . She learns a great deal about herself, about Orlando, and about love itself which she could not have done within the normal conventions of society.


In this play we can observe the importance of the convention of costumes at theatre and the sex confusion scenes in Shakespearian drama. Here we have the male character Orlando, a young boy who is in love with Rosalind, and he meets Ganymede in the forest. Orlando doesn't recognize Rosalind, and believing that Ganymede is a teenage boy, treats him as a male confidant and talks to him about his love for Rosalind. Ganymede teases Orlando about this woman he is in love with and promises to cure Orlando of his love, provided that Orlando courts Ganymede as if he were Rosalind. Orlando agrees to play this game.


Ganymede makes Orlando pretend that she is Rosalind so he may woo her and the joke is, of course, that she is really Rosalind. The gender ambiguities become quite intricate.Sometimes Rosalind shows her real identity to Orlando. In these scenes she behaves like a woman, she accuses him of not really loving her, and when she pretends to be Ganymede, she tries to teach him the proper way to win her heart. She is educating her own lover.


The disguise is very obvious to the audience but is unnoticed by the characters in the play. Cross-dressing, sexual identity, and the performance of gender are among the most hotly discussed topics in contemporary cultural studies. This play is a better example of Shakespeare's uses of the heroine in male disguise-man-playing-woman-playing-man. And at the same time, seeing a woman dressed as a man would be extremely comic. It is comic when Rosalind tries to swagger and come across as convincingly male, but the audience, who know the truth, notice how awkward her attempts often are. But Orlando and the other characters, although sometimes confused by the mistakes Rosalind makes, are willing to believe that her awkwardness is the awkwardness of a boy in his late teens trying to come across as an adult male. Her duplicity produces more confusions in the play, the female character called Phoebe falls in love with Ganymede, because she thinks he is a real boy. On the stage, Phoebe is a girl in love with another girl (Rosalind), that’s what the audience see, it could be seen as a little reference to lesbianism, or to homosexuality between men, as long as Phoebe is, actually, a young boy, an actor, and Rosalind is also a male actor, and homosexuality wasn’t socially accepted in Elizabethan times. Homoheroticism occurs in some Shakespearian plays in a rather subversive way, masked with enough ambiguity to escape censure, like the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant Of Venice.


The role of Rosalind is for actresses what Hamlet is for actors, compared with her, all the other figures in the play seem to be just stock dramatic types. She plays a dominant role, though here Celia, Touchstone and Jaques are less flat in comparison to Rosalind. Celia and Rosalind both show indomitable tongues (when mocking Le Beau and confusing him utterly when asking him the colour of his sport), and though Rosalind takes over the action when they reach Arden, Celia shares the stage at Court with her in equal degree, acting as a sister when poking fun at Rosalind's melancholy. Even in Arden Celia ends up as being less vibrant than Rosalind. She is important not only because of her double role but also because of her witness, her wisdom and charm. She is a complicated character, a genius, and she has long monologues in the play. The epilogue of the play is a monologue of her:


It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue; but it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord the prologue. If it be true that good wine needs no bush, 'tis true that a good play needs no epilogue; yet to good wine they do use good bushes, and good plays prove the better by the help of good epilogues. What a case am I in then, that am neither a good epilogue, nor cannot insinuate with you in the behalf of a good play! I am not furnished like a beggar, therefore to beg will not become me: my way is, to conjure you; and I'll begin with the women. I charge you, O women! for the love you bear to men, to like as much of this play as please you: and I charge you, O men! for the love you bear to women, 'as I perceive by your simpering none of you hate them ,'that between you and the women, the play may please. If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not; and, I am sure, as many as have good beards, or good faces, or sweet breaths, will, for my kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell. (Act 5, Scene 4: The forest. - of the complete text.


1.3. Twelfth Night


Twelfth nigh, or What you will, written for Shakespeare’s all-male company, plays brilliantly with these conventions. The comedy depends on an actor’s ability to transform himself through costume, voice, and gesture, into a young man, Cesario. The play’s delicious complications follow the emotional crosscurrents that Viola’s transformation engenders. Shipwrecked on a strange coast and bereft of her twin brother, the disguised Viola finds a place in the service of Duke Orsino with whom she promptly falls in love. When Orsino send Cesario to help him with the Lady Olivia, Olivia not only rejects the Duke’s suit but falls in love with his messenger. Discomforted to learn that she is the object of Olivia’s love, Viola reflects on the plot’s impassioned triangle:

My master loves her dearly,

And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.

What will become of this?


(2.2.31-34. Twelfth Night.The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.)


In Twelfth Night, clothes do not simply reveal or disguise her identity; they partly constitute identity- or so Viola playfully imagines- making her a strange hybrid creature. She understands perfectly well the narrow biological definition of her sex (though in the characteristically male-centered language of Shakespeare’s culture, she phrases the definition in terms of what she lacks) (3.4.269. Twelfth Night.The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.)


It would have been simple for Shakespeare to devise a concluding scene in which Viola appears in women’s habits, but he goes out of his way to leave her in men’s clothes and hence to disrupt with a delicate comic touch the return to the normal. The transforming power of costume unsettles fixed categories of gender and social class and allows characters to explore emotional territory that a culture officially hostile to same-sex desire and cross-class marriage would ordinarily have ruled out of bounds. In Twelfth Nigh, conventional expectations repeatedly give way to a different way of perceiving the world. Thus, Viola, dresses up as her brother whom she presumes to be dead, so as to pass safely through this strange land, leading to a great number of mistaken-identity gags. Inevitably, she becomes caught up in a bizarre love triangle between the duke she serves and loves and the countess she is wooing on his behalf, who naturally enough falls in love with her. And that's not even getting into the high jinks between sober Malvolio and the drunken Sir Toby Belch. A shipwrecked Viola disguises herself as the boy Cesario and falls in love with her employer, Orsino, the duke of Illyria, who in turn is smitten with Olivia, who suddenly finds herself inexplicably attracted to Cesario/Viola. Olivia is so vulnerable, yearning and aware of her folly that the audience can't wait for her every appearance.


Theese misunderstandings, of course, are largely her creation, in the sense that they mainly derive from a disguise that confounds the distinction between male and female.“ They shall yet belie thy happy years/ That say thou art a man” Orsino says to Caerario (l.4.29-30.Twelfth Night. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.) This perception of ambiguity, rooted in early modern ideas about sexuality and gender, is one of the elements that enabled a boy actor to convincingly mime “a woman’s part”. It is a perception upon which Twelfth Night continually plays and that helps to account for the emotional tangle that the cross-dressed Viola inspires.


Having women dress up as men was a popular device in Shakespeare comedies, in part because all women's roles were played by boys in the first place. That extra level, of a boy playing a woman playing a man, is something seldom seen nowadays, but the gender-bender comedies take on a different level of complexity altogether when performed by Woman's Will, which turns the Elizabethan convention of all-male casts on its head. Now a heroine dressed up as a man has to make her way in a world of men, who also happen to be played by women, and it becomes doubly important to draw a distinction onstage between the women playing men and the women playing women dressed as men.


Woman's Will started in July 1998 with a production of "Two Gentleman of Verona," tried its hand at warlike tragedy the next year with "Coriolanus" and expanded to two plays a season in 2000. Woman's Will's current "Season of Hope" consists of only "Twelfth Night," a lighter offering after the one-two-three punch of "Flies," "Richard III" and "Happy End." Merritt has infant twins, and the company is going through some reorganization, so they're taking it relatively easy this year and plan to be back to two shows in '07.




In love the heavens themselves do guide the state;
Money buys lands, and wives are sold by fate.
(The Merry Wives of Windsor 5.5.225-6.
The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.)


Elizabethan women were not only considered inferior to men, but they were regarded as a male possession: initially by their fathers, who decide over their daughter’s future and marriage, and later by their husbands, to whom women should serve and obey. Regarding females in this way meant that males used to treat them as an item to bargain and at the same time, women were also considered a symbol to reflect to outsiders their family’s status, power and reputation. A good example is what the protestant leader John Knox wrote: "Women in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man." The church supported this belief and made sure the continuity of this principle.


Female disobedience towards the male members of their family was seen as a crime. They were severely punished, in some cases beaten into submission. They did not have the right to be heirs to their father’s titles, everything was inherited from male to male. The role of women in the sixteenth century was, in short, voiceless, a case of being seen and not heard. The intention of the following sections is to present how women, through different types of roles, were considered inside Shakespeare’s comedies. In order to convey the former ideas, female characters have been analysed from the following comedies: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, ‘Comedy of Errors’, and ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’,


2.1. Much Ado About Nothing


The play starts with the end of a war: men returning from battle, taking an active role, and women waiting for men, acquiring then a passive role. It seems that with this beginning, Shakespeare will deal with the traditional patriarcal society usual of his times. However, as the first act begins, Beatrice interrupts the conversation between Leonato and the Messenger. In some way she already reveals her active role in this story by the interruption of a male conversation, an attitude that could be considered inappropiate for women at Elizabethan times.


Act 1, scene 1

BEATRICE: I pray you, is Signior Mountanto returned from the
wars or no?

Messenger: I know none of that name, lady: there was none such
in the army of any sort.

LEONATO: What is he that you ask for, niece?

HERO My cousin means Signior Benedick of Padua.

Messenger: Oh, he's returned; and as pleasant as ever he was.

BEATRICE: He set up his bills here in Messina and challenged
Cupid at the flight; and my uncle's fool, reading
the challenge, subscribed for Cupid, and challenged
him at the bird-bolt. I pray you, how many hath he
killed and eaten in these wars? But how many hath
he killed? for indeed I promised to eat all of his killing.

(Act 1, Scene 1 Before LEONATO'S house - of the complete works


Instead of leaving a secondary role for women, women are the centre of the main plot and taking part in the action. The major events, to a large extent, revolve around the female characters: Hero is the Claudio’s object of love and later of hate, Beatrice is the woman who express freely in a male’s world and the woman who turns Benedict into a “tamed man”; and finally, Margaret and Ursula also contribute, albeit on a smaller scale, to deceive Claudio into thinking that Hero is unfaithful and helping to win the heart of Beatrice towards Benedict respectively.


Woman are no longer voiceless in this play, as was usual in a patriarchal society ruled by men, Beatrice breaks the conventions through her freedom of expression. Furthermore, women are represented as equal to men. This is the case again of Beatrice, who argues with Benedict regardless of his position as a man. Definitely, although to a limited degree, women represented in “Much Ado About Nothing” reach a high social value and great importance compared with the conventional man’s superiority ideology of that time. In spite of giving them roles as wife and mother, here Benedict expresses his gratitude to his mother who brought him to life:

Act 1, Scene 1

BENEDICK :That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she
brought me up, I likewise give her most humble
thanks: but that I will have a recheat winded in my
forehead, or hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick,
all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do
them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the
right to trust none; and the fine is, for the which
I may go the finer, I will live a bachelor.

(Act 1, Scene 1 Before LEONATO'S house - of the complete works


2.1.1 Beatrice vs. Hero


Beatrice and Hero are the representatives of opposite roles: Beatrice is a rebellious woman that could be represented as the active role or the protest against the conventional submissive attitude of women at Elizabethan times. She is the woman who dares to argue and to be as equal as men. Beatrice is also considered, to some degree, a woman whom men cannot control:

Act 2, Scene 1

LEONATO: Well, niece, I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband.

BEATRICE: Not till God make men of some other metal than
earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be
overmastered with a pierce of valiant dust? to make
an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl?
No, uncle, I'll none: Adam's sons are my brethren;
and, truly, I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.

LEONATO: Daughter, remember what I told you: if the prince
do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer.

(Act 2, scene 1 - A hall in LEONATO'S house of the complete works


We can observe that Leonato does not take control over Beatrice’s decision of marriage, and in contrast to it, Leonato does rule over his daughter Hero in the decision of being married. Hero represents women’s submission: she is sweet and docile and most importantly obedient to her father’s decision of marrying her to Claudio. She is almost voiceless in the play, however in act three scene one we can see her taking a assertive role carrying out the plan of getting Beatrice and Benedict together . This is the only occasion where she takes an active role, the rest of the play she agrees and obeys with no opposition every single decision made by men.


According to criticism, Hero is considered a kind of ‘object’ as she was described by Claudio as a ‘jewel’, that could be interpreted as an object which has owner: first as a possession of Leonato and later being Claudio her owner. The attitude of Shakespeare towards women could be described as modern and, in a way, subversive for the society of that period. On the one hand, he places women in a central position of the plot giving them a primary importance; and on the other hand, it could be seen that through the opposition between Beatrice and Hero (assertive vs. submissive), what may Shakespeare intended to criticize was the submissive and passive attitude of women at his times.


2.2.The Comedy of Errors


In this play, we can clearly observe that the identity of the woman is fringed upon that of her husband, in fact the woman was seen as an extension of the man. Women were objects of male desire and dependent on that desire for their status, livelyhood and even their lives. They accepted their husband as teacher and master. And this can be represented by several female characters in Shakespeare's plays.


In act II scene I Adriana seems to be a different woman from the others. Adriana, in the debate with Luciana, her sister, asserts her independence and power within her marriage and she believes that women should have as much freedom as men ("Why should their liberty than ours be more?"). When Dromio of Ephesus enters in the scene she changes her attitude. She has so utterly sunk her identity into her role as wife that she believes the she and her husband are one indivisible whole. Because she thinks that the absence of one partner irreparably takes something away from the other, she over-reacts when Antipholus of Ephesus is absent from home.


Adriana's marriage is not happy, though she undoubtly loves her husband even when she believes him to be unfaithful. She thinks that it is unhappiness because her love is so possessive that she is torn apart by his absences. When Antipholus of Ephesus spends a good deal of time with her Courtesan, Adriana feels that she has lost her attractiveness to him. This character has an important role in the comedy, because she enters in the game of errors. In fact, she mistakes Antipholus of Syracuse for her husband and drags him home for dinner, leaving Dromio of Syracuse to stand guard at the door and admit no one. Adriana is the anti-feminist; her life is wrapped around her husband and her role as wife. She appears to be an overprotective, annoying, shrewish wife.


Luciana's sense of identity within marriage, in her way, contrast with Adriana's. She believes that men are naturally lords over their wives, and wants to learn to obey before she learns to love "Ere I learn love, I'll practise to obey". At the end, she pairs up with Antipholus of Syracuse. He offers to take a submissive role in the relationship, he wants her to teach him how to think and speak.


Act II scene I

ADRIANA But say, I prithee, is he coming home? It seems he

hath great care to please his wife.

DROMIO OF EPHESUS Why, mistress, sure my master is horn-mad.

ADRIANA: Horn-mad, thou villain!

DROMIO OF EPHESUS: I mean not cuckold-mad;

But, sure, he is stark mad.

When I desired him to come home to dinner,

He ask'd me for a thousand marks in gold:

''Tis dinner-time,' quoth I; 'My gold!' quoth he;

'Your meat doth burn,' quoth I; 'My gold!' quoth he:

'Will you come home?' quoth I; 'My gold!' quoth he.

'Where is the thousand marks I gave thee, villain?'

'The pig,' quoth I, 'is burn'd;' 'My gold!' quoth he:

'My mistress, sir' quoth I; 'Hang up thy mistress!

I know not thy mistress; out on thy mistress!'

LUCIANA: Quoth who?

DROMIO OF EPHESUS: Quoth my master:

'I know,' quoth he, 'no house, no wife, no mistress.'

So that my errand, due unto my tongue,

I thank him, I bare home upon my shoulders;

For, in conclusion, he did beat me there.

ADRIANA: Go back again, thou slave, and fetch him home.

DROMIO OF EPHESUS: Go back again, and be new beaten home?

For God's sake, send some other messenger.

ADRIANA: Back, slave, or I will break thy pate across.


ADRIANA: His company must do his minions grace,

Whilst I at home starve for a merry look.

Hath homely age the alluring beauty took

From my poor cheek? then he hath wasted it:

Are my discourses dull? barren my wit?

If voluble and sharp discourse be marr'd,

Unkindness blunts it more than marble hard:

Do their gay vestments his affections bait?

That's not my fault: he's master of my state:

What ruins are in me that can be found,

By him not ruin'd? then is he the ground

Of my defeatures. My decayed fair

A sunny look of his would soon repair

But, too unruly deer, he breaks the pale

And feeds from home; poor I am but his stale.


2.3. The Merry Wives of Windsor


As we have already studied, women are portrayed as a weak and manipulated figure in Shakespearean comedies. Thus, The Merry Wives of Windsor is a good example for the analysis of the character of the woman in this English patriarchal society, especially of the “married woman”. As it is well known, in Shakespearean times woman’s life and duties varied depending on her social class. Among the upper class, the marriage was seen as a way of achieving a family’s political and social ambitions. It was a mean of productivity, not only a sentimental affair.


In this comedy, the two main feminine characters, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, are married to prosperous burghers, although in this case they have the control over their husband‘s money. But apart from the economic and political issues of the marriage, the importance of the concept of faithfulness and sexual exclusivity is also shown in this play . The comedy’s message is transmitted by Mistress Page: “Wives may be merry, and yet honest, too” (4.2.89. The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997. ). We see here not only a possible play on words (marry- merry), but also the concept of “honour” is introduced. In this epoque, the concept of woman’s honour was related to the fact of being sexually faithful to her husband.


Throughout the play, the concept of women’s fidelity is questioned by the masculine figure of Ford, who does not trust his wife. Page and Ford are told about Falstaff’s plans to seduce their wives to get their money, but they do not know that their wives are aware of Falstaff’s intentions and prepare a plot to humiliate him and save their honour as married women. Whilst Page has no doubt about his wife’s integrity, Ford is convinced that his wife will dishonour him. Eventually, both women achieve their purpose of making a fool of Falstaff. They tell their husbands about their schemes and Ford has to apologise for his behaviour. As we can observe, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford adopt a playful but chaste behaviour through the play, but Ford’s doubts about his wife’s honesty bring up the medieval idea of the woman as an object of temptation. Ford’s behaviour represents the common male fear of being tricked by women, while Mistress Page and Mistress Ford represent the "perfect wife", respectful of and faithful to their husbands.


The sexual charge in the comedy is also brought up by a feminine character: Mistress Quickly. She misunderstands other’s people words and hears sexual charged conversations were there are supposed to be none:


EVANS: What is your genitive case plural, William?

WILLIAMS: Genitive case?


WILLIAM: Genitive: horum, harum, horum.

MISTRESS QUICKLY: Vengeance of Jenny's case; Fie on her!

Never name her, child, if she be a whore.


(4.1.50-54. The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.)


As an overview analysis, here genitive may suggests “genital”, as well as “Jenny”. “Case” is a slag word which means “vagina” and “horum” has a really similar pronunciation to “whore”. There are many other examples that we could mention, but here the important fact is that the figure of the woman continues to be related to sexual connotations. Moreover, when the masculine character of Falstaff dresses up as a woman, we recognise a different pattern of sexual allusion within the play. Ford addresses a series of insults to whom he believes is an old woman: “ a witch, a quean, an old cozening quean” (4.2.149.The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.). This sexual devaluation of a woman was common in those times. Old women werecommonly considered as witches when they were not married, widowed or poor. Apart from this, the concept of travestism is introduced. In every Shakespeare’s representation on a stage, male actors disguised themselves as women to interpret feminine characters, as we have already seen. Does it makes any difference when it is within a play and not only on the stage? Why does Falstaff disguise himself as a woman? Maybe to hide behind a woman’s disguise was the only way he could avert Ford’s confrontation, although he could not eventually.





To conclude, the character of Anne Page, is also a good example of the unimportance of the woman at the time of making decisions, and above all, in choosing a husband. In Shakespeare’s times women married the man her parents stated. Women had no say in the matter. As the play is a comedy, it has a happy ending and their parents finally take notice of her will, so she marries the man she wants. Generally, this did not happen in real life. Women were considered as a mere instrument in social, politic and public life, as is clearly shown throughout Shakespearean works.


As it has already been stated, at first glance Shakespeare’s comedies seem to substantiate the view that during the Elizabethan period women’s and men’s espheres were strictly separated from each other. Men were the ones in power, the people who took all the important decisions, while the perfect woman had to be obedient and loyal to her husband/father, to trust his wisdom and ability to judge the situation rightly and then to take an accurate way of action. However, if we care to dig a bit deeper and go beyond the possibly deceitful surface, we realize that the picture of women as powerless and obedient creatures is far from being the whole truth.


It cannot be denied that during Shakespeare’s times women were far from being equal to men and that this attitude is also reflected in many of Shakespeare’s works, which thrive with loving and loyal women such as Desdemona. Nevertheless, it would not be accurate either to deny that in some of Shakespeare’s works, women have the courage to take their fate into their own hands and subvert male authority, even if this occurs within a very limited space of action.


Throughout Shakespeare’s comedies we are confronted with a whole range of very strong female characters who refuse to act according to the rules imposed upon them, but differ in their behaviour from the ideal that they are supposed to follow. Some women take up male attire in order to be able to go for their goals while other characters dare to speak their mind in spite of the fact that this behaviour is considered to be inaccurate for the female gender. It is obvious that Shakespeare is not afraid of confronting his audience with extraordinary female characters who manage to make the action of the comedies much livelier and more thrilling.


Nevertheless, it would be wrong to claim that Shakespeare wants to underline and reaffirm women’s equality to men as some feminists would have it. It is rather to be assumed that the strong female characters in Shakespeare’s comedies serve a totally different purpose. Any character going out of his/her way is probably the best source of humour any author can wish for because unusual behaviour or cross-dressing will necessarily lead to confusion and humorous encounters with other characters. Regarded from this point of view, Shakespeare abuses his heroines for humorous purposes rather than using his influence as a playwright in order to fight for women’s rights in society. And it must no be forgotten that Shakespeare does not fail to put women back into their places and/or show the possible negative consequences of their behaviour. Usually the women get married at the end of the plays and are happy to lead a life in submission to their husbands from this moment on.


Thus we can conclude that Shakespeare deliberately makes his female characters break with the rules imposed upon them and thus converts them into a source of humour. But after letting his women characters have their way, he reaffirms their traditional role in society by putting them back in their place. We cannot deny that Shakespeare was undoubtedly deeply steeped in the discourse of his time and that probably the time was not yet ripe for a female character who could be viewed as being an equal to her male contemporaries.






. Books:

▪Greenblatt, Stephen.The Norton Shakespeare: "The Merry Wives of Windsor" . Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997 (pages1225-1381)

▪Greenblatt, Stephen.The Norton Shakespeare: "As You Like It" . Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997 (pages 1600-1656).

▪Greenblatt, Stephen.The Norton Shakespeare: "Twelfth Night" . Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997 (pages 1768-1821).

▪Greenblatt, Stephen.The Norton Shakespeare: "Much Ado About Nothing" . Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997 (pages 1381-1591).


.Electronic resources:

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Webmaster: Created by Jeremy Hylton. Operated by The Tech, MIT's oldest and largest newspaper

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Hylton, Jeremy. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.The Merchant of Venice <>

Webmaster: Created by Jeremy Hylton. Operated by The Tech, MIT's oldest and largest newspaper



Laws, Richard. "The Empowerment of Women in Shakespearean Comedy". Washington State University. < >

Webmaster: © 1999-2003 Amanda Mabillard. All Rights Reserved.

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▪ Newman, Alex. Women's role in 16th Century society : "History of Women".< >

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▪ Wells, Natalie. How Does Shakespeare Present Women in Much Ado About Nothing?. < <>>

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▪Gray, Timothy M. Twelfth Night . < < Webmaster:Copyright © 2005 William Shakespeare info

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▪William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It,Twelfth Night, or What You Will. From Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia .<<>>webmaster: Wikipedia® is a registered trademark of the Wikimedia Foundation

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▪Shakespeare, William (Understanding Shakespeare. Literary criticism. Twentieth century and beyond. Feminist criticism and gender studies) <<>>

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